Tennessee student who wore gorilla mask, dangled bananas at Black Lives Matter rally cleared of most charges
A former East Tennessee State University student who was arrested and charged for allegedly interrupting a Black Lives Matter rally on campus while wearing a gorilla mask and dangling bananas on ropes in 2016 was cleared of most charges on Wednesday, 17 July.
Tristan Rettke came to the September 28, 2016 protest at Borchuck Plaza outside the campus library barefoot, dressed in overalls, wearing a gorilla mask and dangling bananas tied with a rope, Johnson City Press reports. He was 18 years old back then.
The rally was organized at a time when several encounters between police and black men had ended in fatal shootings. That Borchuck Plaza area was chosen as it has a fountain dedicated to the first African-American students to attend ETSU.
When one protestor asked him why he was wearing the mask, he allegedly replied, "I identify as a gorilla. I look like you."
He also attempted to distribute bananas from a burlap sack that was decorated with a marijuana leaf and a confederate flag. Rettke also held up a sign that read, "Lives Matter."
He was eventually escorted from the protest by public safety officers and was later criminally charged with civil rights intimidation, disorderly conduct, and disrupting a meeting by the Johnson City Police Department.
His trial took place at the Washington County Court in Jonesborough this week. Prosecutors were seeking to prove that Rettke's actions had intimidated the protestors and violated their civil rights while the defense argued that the teen had only been exercising his first amendment rights.
The prosecution said Rettke had tied the bananas in a slip knot, which was interpreted by rally demonstrators as a noose showing the time when slavery and lynching of African Americans were rampant.
Brook’ale Anderson, one of the protestors, in his testimony and said, "When he came out there, honestly I was scared. The thought kept running in my mind that ‘am I going to make it home to my mom?"
Five other participants gave similar testimonies and said they felt Rettke was referring to them as animals.
Assistant District Attorney General Erin McArdle conceded that the defendant had the right to attend the protest and express his opinions, but urged the jury to take into consideration the history of racial oppression towards African Americans.
During his opening arguments, Rettke's lawyer, Patrick Denton, said "I’m not going to tell you this wasn’t racism. That would just be disingenuous. We can all just acknowledge there’s a strong racist element to it. But what the Constitution says is that he can express racist views."
The likes of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and ACLU of Tennessee had criticized Rettke's arrest. They had said there was no evidence to suggest that he had threatened anyone, and he was still protected by the First Amendment.
Denton brought up that same argument in court, insisting that his client was just a heckler who had been exercising his right to free speech. "Are we going to outlaw heckling?" he asked.
The all-white jury sided with the defense and found Rettke, now 21, not guilty of one misdemeanor count of disrupting a meeting, and not guilty of two counts each of civil rights intimidation and disorderly conduct.
However, they did recommend that he pay a $500 fine.